Arthur's bad day
X Factor winner James Arthur has been a bad boy, but can his talent redeem him?
Is James Arthur the most horrid man in pop? The internet says ... "yes"! The X Factor winner recently managed to infuriate all of Twitter (yes, the whole thing) by recording a homophobic rap and then -- not too clever, this -- Tweeting a link to his two million followers.
The tattoo-slathered 24-year-old rhymed viciously about homosexual behaviour in his northeast England burr using earning the opprobrium of minority rights campaigners, fellow musicians, former fans -- everybody, actually. He has since deactivated his Twitter account and slunk off somewhere dimly lit and firmly out of sight (X Factor USA, perhaps?). It remains unclear whether his career will recover. Singers can get away with a lot (Exhibit A: Lily Allen's John Lewis ad). Spewing vile hate, thankfully, remains beyond the pale.
The furore came as a shock to everyone -- apart, you suspect, from Arthur himself. Speaking exclusively to Day & Night a few weeks earlier, he is painfully alive to the likelihood of his enormous gob landing him in trouble. He isn't apologetic or embarrassed. He accepts that this is the way it is. He shoots his mouth off, stuff happens.
"I'm the first to admit I've done the odd facepalm when I've said some stupid shit on Twitter," he says. "I've retaliated at one or two
people. I become very disheartened and antsy with small-minded negative types who might not listen to the music. They want to write me off and talk about the way I look. To me that's bullying. I would never attack someone's appearance or character."
You may scoff but, in person, Arthur seems a reasonably decent chap, not at all the lairy knuckle-dragger we know from Twitter. He's down-to-earth, straight-talking, about as far from the Tracy Flick, stomp-all-over-you types usually romping about the winner's enclosure on reality shows. However, it is also obvious he's extremely sensitive.
"I avoid reading anything that's written about me -- except if journalists are coming to interview me," he says. "I like to be aware if they've passed any snide remarks. If they have, I won't speak to them."
It's almost possible to feel sorry for him. This time a year ago, Arthur was an unemployed musician with a history of minor misdemeanours, trying to scrape his life together. From a broken home and of a somewhat neurotic disposition, it's difficult to conceive of someone less suited to the overnight celebrity X Factor bequeaths. You imagine it must feel like being coshed over the head with a champagne bottle.
"Fame doesn't appeal to me," he says. "I entered X Factor because I was trying to secure a job out of it. It's not easy. One minute you're someone nobody gives a damn about. The next, you can't go on nights out. You meet people and, the more drunk they are, the funnier they start acting around you."
If the tabloids are to be believed, the pressure of X Factor led Arthur to contemplate taking his own life. He scoffs.
"Words are distorted in the media," he says. "You say stuff off the cuff and then it's up as a headline. I'm open that I went through a hard spell. I've had a couple of meltdowns. It's a difficult transition. I've said in interviews that there were days I was so exhausted I wanted to fall asleep and never wake up. Then that's written down as me contemplating suicide. It's ridiculous."
Without wishing to make excuses for his atrocious recent behaviour, by anyone's standards Arthur has had a difficult life. Born in Middlesbrough, his parents split when he was a year old (and remained estranged until X Factor). Aged nine, he moved to Bahrain with his mother and stepfather, but returned to the UK after that relationship also ended.
As a young man, he became a bit of a tearaway. Aggressive when drunk, he'd get into post-pub fights around Middlesbrough and was once thrown in a police cell overnight.
Still, he wasn't a completely hopeless case. Having begun writing songs as a teenager, by his early 20s he was compulsively flitting between bands, posting dozens of tracks online. Friends and family reckoned he should be a star. He thought so too. Why wasn't he?
"I felt miserable," he nods. "I'd imagined I would be in a much better place. Those goals [musical success] were as far away as ever. I grew disheartened. If I hadn't achieved what I did on X Factor, I'd maybe have spiralled into obscurity and not cared about life."
Arthur knew what he was signing up for when he attended that initial X Factor audition. While he regarded himself as a serious artist, he understood he'd be obliged to play to the crowd to a degree.
"I was aware there would be circus antics," he says. "I felt I was prepared. Then, how can you prepare for something like that? Early on, I remember seeing the cameras coming towards me and thinking, 'I'm going to have a panic attack'. I was an everyday dude trying to live my life. If you're not Mr Bubbly on camera, the response can be negative. They're like, 'Oh, he has no personality'. That's all very strange. You grow used to it with repetition. It brings you around."
His X Factor mentor was Nicole Scherzinger, the former Pussycat Doll. It seemed unlikely they would rub along, but they clicked fantastically. She respected his talent, he valued her experience and honesty. Above all, he was struck by how down-to-earth she was.
"For a global mega-star to be so humble and nice was astonishing," he says.
After winning X Factor, he set to work on his debut album. Signed to Simon Cowell's SyCo label, he worried about the potential for outside interference. As it happens, SyCo was hands-off. They understood Arthur wasn't another moppet churned out on the production line.
"They left me to my own devices, didn't try to mould me," he says. "I think on X Factor they're used to contestants who don't know who they are. I know exactly who I am. I think the label appreciates that."
If anything, you gather that his experiences with the music industry have been far more positive than those with the media. He truly does feel hard done by. Yes, he was rather a scallywag in his younger days. Sometimes he drops harsh, foolish comments on Twitter. For all that, he's trying, really hard, to be a better person.
"I feel I've done a lot of positives this year," he says. "I've achieved a massive turnaround. It's sad so many individuals are trying to paint me in a negative light. The media in the UK lies constantly. They don't like guys like me having success. Some of the press I've got is worse than the press paedophiles and murderers receive. It's crazy."
James Arthur's self titled album is out now. He plays Dublin's Olympia on February 3 and Cork Opera House on February 4